Being a couple means that we invest in one another, sharing not just our time and resources, but also our vulnerabilities, our fears, and our hopes. But, when the relationship starts to falter, an entire host of compounding fears can arise: not just of losing the partner, but of losing the idea of “us,” the plans we’ve made, and the potential we know is there.
In an attempt to get your partner into counseling, there are several ways you can take the helm of your relationship and guide it to safety. Here are four ways to communicate to help get your relationship the care it needs.
1. Know Your Pain: Describe How You Feel, Not What They’re Doing
It is an unfortunate,but all too common practice to try and convince a partner they need to change by telling them how their behavior hurts. These kinds of attempts to end the pain are quickly seen as criticism, controlling tactics, and out-of-control anger. Instead of helping our partner feel empathetic and fostering an “aha!” moment where things change dramatically, what we’re really doing is shutting down the repair process.
It is important to tell your partner not what they are doing, but how it feels inside your body when you interpret their behaviors (read more in Part 1 one of this series). For example, if your partner doesn’t listen well, instead of telling them how bad of a listener they are, use the formula: “I am telling myself that _____, and when I tell myself that I feel _____”. Let me demonstrate: “I am telling myself that I will always be unheard and unimportant to you, and when I tell myself that I feel lonely and isolated. I am not sure if it is true, but I need you to know what is happening in my mind and heart.”
This formula keeps you accountable for your interpretations of your partner’s actions and helps your partner hear you without feeling accused or becoming protective. The other major benefit to using a template like this is that it inspires empathy within your partner. When they have the option to consider what it feels like for you, rather than having to debate the “truth” or accuracy of your recollection, they can easily slip into being your teammate, not your opponent. Creating this dynamic will help set the stage for your approaching conversation about going to therapy.
2. Keep Things Equal: Own Your Side of the Street, Promise to Clean It up, and Keep It Clean
Once you have created an unbiased and safe emotional environment for your partner, you can take the next step by owning your part of the dysfunction. Having a clear understanding as to how you contribute to the problem will help you level the playing field. Giving a heartfelt apology can go a long way. Here is my favorite apology recipe:
- Admit what you have done
- Tell them how you believe it was hurtful to them
- Tell them how you got to that particular behavior
- Tell them how you will prevent it from happening again
- Sincerely apologize
Here is an example:
“Babe, I admit to being controlling and trying to force you to change for me. I imagine it left you feeling criticized, shamed, and inadequate. I kept telling myself that I wasn’t important to you, and when I told myself that I just tried to get you to see it by allowing my pain and desperation to flare up and my anger to spread out. I will take measures to protect you from my criticism and anger so that you never have to experience it again. Babe, I am so sorry for what I have done.”
This five-pronged apology will model the camaraderie and openness you’d like to receive from your partner.
3. Describe Your Desire: Tell Them What You Really Want
Remember, avoid telling your partner what they are doing wrong and that only counseling can fix it. Instead, rely on the desires that go unseen. You see, the underlying reason most people come to therapy is so they can feel secure in their relationships, fulfilled by their sharing of emotional intimacy, and so they can have a person with whom they truly belong. Instead of guilting or shaming your partner into therapy, articulate what you really want to see come true for you, for them, and for the relationship. Get underneath the surface of the everyday interactions and describe what you really want at your core: the feeling of being cherished, understood, and belonging.
4. Ask About Their Fears or Hesitations
Don’t forget that your partner might be afraid of sharing their feelings in front of another person, or they might be afraid that they’ll find out they really have nothing to offer. In other words, they might be scared that a therapist will reveal that they are truly an emotional fraud with very little to offer. So be gentle in how you advocate for couples therapy.
If your partner is experiencing this fear, a good way of helping them is to create a safe place where they might be comfortable to tell you about their insecurities or their fears of being vulnerable. A good way to help them through such a challenging process would be to ask if you can have a phone consultation to help your partner get used to the idea and the process. A good therapist will be able to identify your partner’s fear and will create a rapport to help them overcome their hesitations.
It might take some time to get your partner to sign up for therapy, and you might have to repeat steps 1-4 a couple of times. Getting your partner to move into a vulnerable place might not happen overnight, but the journey toward relational health will be worth every ounce of energy.